Eating Miss Campbell had its world première at FrightFest 2022
Eating Miss Campbell begins with a mixture of signals. First there is the Troma Team Release ident, setting a certain tone of trashy tastelessness (Lloyd Kaufman will later cameo with a two-word joke that practically defines ‘too soon’). Then Joe Renzetti’s jaunty upbeat score kicks in, all plucked strings and Fifties sit-com chirpiness, ironising everything. As goth schoolgirl Beth Conner (the excellent Lyndsey Craine) opens the fridge, we see in the foreground a (vegan) milk carton, and on it a missing ad for Peltzer Arbuckle, the protagonist of Liam Regan’s feature debut My Bloody Banjo (2015) – and indeed, this follow-up is very much set in the same universe as Banjo, even in the same fictional English town of Henenlotter (named in honour of another director of psychotronic schlock, Frank Henenlotter). Perhaps though it is the words beneath Arbuckle’s image on the milk carton that are the best index as to what kind of film this will be and how it should be received: “Approach with extreme caution.”
Make no mistake: for all its breezy presentation, Eating Miss Campbell busts taboos like nobody’s business, with an endless parade of date rape, paedophilia, high school killing sprees, psychopathic murders, cannibalism, self-harm and the taking of one’s own life. “Teenage suicide is such a cliché in horror,” 17-year-old Beth declares in her opening scene, before graphically illustrating the most effective way of slashing one’s wrist: “Remember kids, it’s down the road not across the street”. With these words she is not just baiting the BBFC (who in the past have demanded that similar ‘imitable’ depictions of slicing along the forearm be, well, cut), but is also, like the teenage girl in the prologue to Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011), breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to camera. For Beth is all too aware that she is in a film, even referring to the crew behind the camera. As Beth openly references the many other self-conscious teen horror films, like Michael Lehman’s Heathers (1988), Wes Craven’s Scream series and Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls (2017), from which her own story is liberally – and parodically – lifting its materials, she wants nothing more than to “escape this shitty horror movie once and for all”, with her preferred but serially failing method of escape, suicide, being the deconstructive force that puts a gun to the head of stale tropes. Here, even postmodern self-consciousness is recognised for the tired old convention that it has become – or as Beth herself puts it, “Meta and self-aware foreshadowing is so fucking pretentious.”
New American teacher Miss Campbell (Lala Barlow), who will become Beth’s mentor, lover, partner in crime and nemesis, is equally happy to provide a reflexive commentary on the plot as it unfolds. In one scene where the bared breasts of fellow school staff member Nancy Applegate (Annabella Rich) are exposed, gratuitously and at length, Miss Campbell will observe, “We all know nudity in the horror genre is only there to appeal to the lowest common denominator” – and she is quick to recognise Beth, accurately if sounding more like a critic than a character, as “the millennial product of the American high school trope.” Indeed Beth is trapped in tropes, and unable to get out, with even her acts of self-killing just leading her to wake up in yet another hackneyed cinematic scenario no better than the last. Everything here is governed by a dream logic, which is to say a movie logic. Nonsensically, the school’s new headmaster Mr Sawyer (Vito Trigo) is putting on a commercially live-streamed eating competition where the prize is a real handgun which the winning pupil can use either to commit suicide or to massacre their fellow pupils. Beth wants to win because she hopes that the gun will finally allow her to succeed in killing herself, even as head ‘mean girl’ Clarissa (Emily Haigh) plans to “exterminate all the freaks and goths at Henenlotter High like it’s 1940s Nazi Germany.” Meanwhile vegan Beth has discovered both an erotic desire for Miss Campbell, and a craving to devour human flesh which Campbell is soon gleefully enabling and feeding via a teacher-pupil relationship that has long since transgressed the merely improper.
‘Nostalgia is cancer’ is an oft repeated catchphrase (and hashtag) in Eating Miss Campbell. Even if she is played, as a running joke that the film keeps pointing out, by an actress in her thirties, Beth is going on 18, on the cusp of adulthood – and she longs to forge an identity that is not dictated by the rules of horror movies past, to break free of the clichés of her own and previous generations, even just to live her life in a different genre like (whisper it) romantic comedy. Yet her entanglement with Miss Campbell is not the wild romance she imagines it to be, her father (James Hamer-Morton, who played Peltzer Arbuckle in Regan’s Banjo) and stepmother (Charlie Bond) will turn out to be more like the clan from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) than the light-comedy parents they at first appear to be, and adolescence – that period of transformation and disillusionment and innocence lost – will prove to be strictly, ineluctably, stuck in the horror genre, with all its hoary old conventions.
In this respect Beth is like the “straight-to-video’ movie in which she has become caught. For while Eating Miss Campbell may, like its heroine, be aware of the cancerous state that it has inherited from past cinematic tradition, it nonetheless can do nothing to end the sickness. This is a ‘sophomoric’ work in three different senses: all at once the second of Regan’s features; a wilfully immature piece; and – in keeping with the etymology of the word sophomore – a paradoxical mix of the smart and the stupid, the sophisticated and the determinedly juvenile. The gags are hit and miss, the scenes between the different scheming teachers are cartoonish and overlong, all the motivations and stakes here are too removed from reality to keep the viewer fully engaged, the initial postmodern thrill soon loses its steam and at a certain point you’ll find yourself sharing Beth’s wish that it could all be over – but the inherent silliness and pathological perversity of genre cinema, and that element of ‘no reason’ which lies at its core, are precisely what Regan is acknowledging, cannibalising and, in a very qualified way, celebrating.
strap: Liam Regan’s sophomoric feature regards adolescence itself as a schlocky straight-to-video horror movie
© Anton Bitel